Published Jul 28, 2010

Local foods project – three months later

By Tomoko Ogawa

When I was reading a success story about the renowned local food establishment, L’Etoile Restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, one sentence especially struck me: “Through the peak of the season, Traci estimates that they source 95 to 97 percent of their ingredients local, with wintertime averages around 75 to 80 percent” (from Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat by Costa, T. 2010. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith). Only a few months back, I would have simply thought, “Wow, that’s great.” But having worked on the local foods project, many questions popped in my head – “How do they define local?” “Is it based on dollar amount or weight?” “What do they do about costly items such as oil, grains, chocolate…?” etc. etc. I am not questioning the accuracy of their numbers, but local foods project has definitely taught to be critical when I come across anything related to local food. So in the article by Cullers, R. titled “McDonald’s Touts Locally Sourced Food” from Brandweek Magazine that Sarah Carlson forwarded to PFI list earlier this week, I couldn’t quite comprehend when I read “95 percent of McDonald’s fries, 95 percent of Filet-O-Fish fillets, and 85 percent of the apples served in Washington State come from Washington”!

It’s been almost three months since we launched the local foods project. It requires diligence to keep records of food purchases, but we still have about 10 dedicated participants. To grasp what it takes, I’m also keeping track of my own food purchases. My food purchases are currently at 33% local and 67% non-local. My local food purchase has actually decreased slightly since I started harvesting vegetables from my community garden plot.

So why record keeping? Personally, it’s been helpful to really understand my food purchases. I’ve always assumed I was good at eating locally, but through this project, I realized how much I depend on the industrial food system. Similarly, some of our participants found it surprising to see how little they spend on local foods. Merissa Landrigan says, “I was shocked to learn that, for someone who does almost all her shopping at Wheatsfield Co-op and through Farm to Folk, I was still spending only about 12% locally.” Another participant, Sue Posch decided to join yet another CSA after finding out how little local stores carry local products. She says, “The project is making me even more appreciative of the CSAs and farmers’ markets in the area.” Others, such as Jean Goodwin, expressed their surprises to find out simply how much money they spend on food in general.

Discussions on local foods should incorporate many different angles, and reaching a high percentage of local foods purchases at individual levels shouldn’t put an end to our conversations. I recently enjoyed reading the article titled “Why eaters alone can’t transform the food system” by Philpott, T. in Grist Magazine. While keeping in mind the importance of looking at a bigger picture and being careful to not replace systemic problems with individual problems, I still think that reflecting on our everyday actions is quite meaningful.